HiFiMAN HE-500 Review

The HiFiMAN HE-500 is an old pair of headphones that's still talked about to this day, but has nothing better really come out since or is this just nostalgia talk?

Bottom Line

The sound quality of the HiFiMAN HE-500 is a thing of legend – it offers unmatched clarity across all sound frequencies. The sound is warm yet still balanced and detailed, and the drivers are so responsive that they can comfortably keep pace with any type of music. The audio alone gets an 11 out of 10. But nothing else about the headphones meets a standard nearly as high.

Build:
(3.5)
Comfort:
(2.4)
Sound:
(5.0)
3.7

The HiFiMAN HE-500 is a pair of headphones that is soon to be a decade old. It has also been several years since it got discontinued (although you can at times buy refurbished models directly from HiFiMAN).

In consumer-electronic years, this is eons! Yet these headphones are still talked about and recommended fairly often. There is no testament better than this to their superb sound quality. Anyone who has used them has certainly loved them.

To put things in perspective, when the HiFiMAN HE-500 launched at an MSRP of $899, it positively demolished the audiophile-grade headphone competition at that price range. Steve Guttenberg called it a contender for the world’s best headphone. Since audio equipment does not age as poorly as things like smartphones or graphics cards, there is no doubt that the HE-500 still sound phenomenal today.

But the rest of the market has had years upon years to catch up, which begs the question: Is a used HiFiMAN HE-500 worth jumping through hoops to get now?

Let’s find out!

Specifications

NameHiFiMAN HE-500
TypeOpen-back headphones
DriversPlanar-magnetic
Frequency response10Hz – 40kHz
Impedance38 Ω
Sensitivity89dB/1mW
Weight500 grams

Build

Visually, the HE-500 look very simple – they’ve got two large cans and a headband. The logo with the model name is about the only decoration these mono-colored headphones have. And this no-nonsense design philosophy feels adequate for these headphones. They are here to do one thing and one thing only: deliver phenomenal sound.

And deliver phenomenal sound they do (more on that later), but unfortunately, this means that other aspects of the headphone feel lacking in places. For example, the HE-500 comes in a sturdy and premium-feeling box. Inside the box, you get the headphones, two pairs of earpads, a pouch, a ¼ inch braided silver screw-on cable, and extra screw-on connectors if you would like to use a different cable.

You should use a different cable.

Even assuming a price of $400 or $500 (which is what the HE-500 can typically be found for nowadays, although the refurbished models on the HiFiMAN store go for $600), the cable just feels poorly made and not up to snuff with the sound quality.

The screw-on design is something we’re glad to see hasn’t caught on. It’s not that it doesn’t work – it works fine – but it can be too stable for its own good. If a normal detachable cable catches on something, it will most likely just get yanked out of the earcup, but not this cable. Eventually, this will either destroy the cable or the headphones if you’re not careful.

Thankfully, the headphones are rather sturdy. The materials used for the HE-500 are a combination of plastic, metal and leather, so the device feels durable enough that it can take its fair bit of punishment.

Comfort

Another aspect where the HiFiMAN HE-500 feels lacking is comfort.

Sure, the headphones come with two pairs of ear pads – leather and velour – but neither pair feels quite right. Part of this has to do with the weight of the headphones. The HE-500 weigh in at 500 grams (just over 1.1 lbs)! This super heavyweight design can work and it has worked in other headphones, but only when the overall construction is made to functionally support this weight. And this just isn’t the case with the HE-500.

The clamping force thankfully isn’t too strong, as the ear pads are mediocre enough already, but the pressure from all that weight has to go somewhere. In this case, that somewhere is at the top of the headband. Combine this with the fact that the headband also feels sorely lacking in the padding department and you’ve got yourself a recipe for discomfort.

If you can get an aftermarket pair of earpads and something to soften the headband, then the change in comfort is significant. This is worth doing and has been done by many people who sought to enjoy the excellent audio these headphones provide. Even then, the weight of the headphones won’t be kind to your neck, but you should be able to wear them for at least a couple of hours on end.

Sound

The reason the HiFiMAN HE-500 is so heavy boils down to one reason – it uses planar-magnetic drivers. You can read all about how planar-magnetic drivers work and how they compare to other headphone drivers in this article. We highly recommend you do so if you are unfamiliar with this term, as it’s not something we can just abridge to one or two sentences.

Planar-magnetic headphones lend themselves to an open-back design, which is why the HE-500 is an open-back pair of headphones. In fact, it is one of the most opened headphones on the market – you can still hear everything that’s going on around you while wearing the HE-500 as if the device wasn’t even there. This also means you can throw sound isolation out of the equation entirely.

So, needless to say, the HE-500 has a superbly wide soundstage. It’s also got amazing imaging and great instrument separation to go with it. This all combines to give the HE-500 a sound that is best described as exciting – the music is there, in your room, all around you.

Typically, an exciting pair of headphones feature a V-shaped frequency range or boosted lows, but not the HE-500. These headphones have a balanced sound that is still somehow warm, fast and exciting.

The bass is very detailed yet still strong and punchy. It doesn’t shine as well in genres like rap or electronic music, but for everything else where you want to feel the smooth and creamy texture of the bass, the HE-500 is a treat for the ears.

What’s most impressive about it is how responsive it is, although this goes for the entire frequency range – the HE-500 will bring out details in music that you never knew were there. The mids are also spectacular, especially the vocals. Yet the thing that stands out the most about the crystal clear highs is how non-sibilant they are.

So overall, the HE-500 is outstanding with regards to audio quality. It performs flawlessly across the entire frequency range and delivers a warm yet balanced sound that is hard to find anywhere else. It is harder to drive so you will need an amplifier to get the most out of it.

Conclusion

Normally in these types of product reviews, we have at least four categories by which the product is scored and evaluated – build/design, comfort, features, and sound. The features portion is missing here because there’s just nothing to talk about.

So to sum it up, the HiFiMAN HE-500 is a planar magnetic set of headphones that’s plain-looking, heavy, fairly uncomfortable, and that also requires additional investments to get the most out of (earpads, something to pad the headband, better cable). It requires an amplifier to use properly, so using it in outdoor situations also isn’t likely unless you also get an external amplifier/DAC like the Chord Mojo.

Yet even with all of these downsides, the HiFiMAN HE-500 is still worth buying just for the sound quality alone.

These are not headphones that we would recommend to most people. You have to value sound quality to the exclusion of everything else and be willing to jump through many hoops to even get your hands on one of these headphones, but those who deem this level of effort reasonable in their pursuit of high-quality audio will not find the HE-500 lacking.

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James is a self-proclaimed audiophile and tech geek. With his CS degree, 5 years of experience as a software developer and 2 years of experience testing audio devices, James is more than fit to be trusted in this field.